If you took a class at the University of Iowa lately, it’s likely that class was taught not by a full-time professor, but by a graduate student teaching assistant.
That’s common across many large research universities in the US. But those graduate students are making very little money for their outsized efforts, says Hannah Zadeh, a graduate student teaching assistant.
“What you learn from being a graduate student … is that the university is really exploiting you and your labor in a very direct way,” said Zadeh, a second-year graduate student in the sociology and criminology department. “By using that teaching assistant labor, (the university is) able to get a lot of teaching done for very little cost.”
Those teaching assistants don’t want to be exploited any longer.
The UI Campaign to Organize Graduate Students (COGS), in existence since the mid-90s and affiliated with United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), represents about 1,900 teaching assistants on campus. Zadeh is the president of that union.
Their next contract is set to be negotiated this spring. But fearing the Board of Regents won’t give them a cost of living raise—Zadeh said COGS expects between 1 and 2% rather than the 10% they said would be more in line with recent inflation—COGS held a rally this month to fight for more.
“That’s really the only percentage where it actually starts to be a real, substantive raise, and not just less than cost-of-living or at cost-of-living increases,” they said.
Zadeh said bringing their fight to the public was necessary, as neither the Board of Regents—which sets wages for teaching assistants at public universities—nor university administration has been interested in meeting with COGS.
“We are not trying to convince the Board of Regents to view us as real people who deserve to be paid a living wage; we’re not doing that,” Zadeh said. “What we’re doing is building public pressure so that they can feel like they cannot afford to not give us a real raise.”
Because the union began in 1993, graduate students used to flock to the University of Iowa because salaries were higher than other similarly situated universities, Zadeh said. Now, out of the 13 Big 10 universities, Iowa is the 10th lowest in terms of graduate student pay. In a recent internal study, faculty expressed anxiety about the college’s ability to recruit quality graduate students because of it, Zadeh noted.
They’re not the only workers being paid less: Minimum wage for UI student employees is currently $8.20 an hour, the second-lowest wage among Big 10 universities, according to the Daily Iowan. Undergraduate students are now fighting for $15 an hour.
Those fights aren’t separate, Zadeh said.
“We want to support that as well, and (support) workers in our community generally,” they said.
Similarly, even though the state of Iowa limited public union bargaining to wages only, COGS is working to get the university to recognize other quality-of-life issues in their contract, like reproductive health care and eliminating costly student fees that are “basically paying to work,” Zadeh said.
If students can get a better deal somewhere else, they’ll go somewhere else, and Iowa’s brain drain will continue. But the ripple effect can be reversed, Zadeh said, and COGS will keep pressing for better conditions for students and workers.
“If we want to protect what we have as our public higher education system in Iowa, and build on it in a positive way, the struggle for graduate student workers is really connected to that,” they said.
by Amie Rivers
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